Was My History Degree Worthless?

by Elizabeth on April 1, 2013 · 15 comments

I’ve been reading a lot lately about college degrees that are apparently “worthless.” Listed among these so-called worthless degrees are fields like English, Fine Arts, and – my undergraduate major – History.

Every time I read such an article, I find myself foaming at the mouth, trying to control my emotions as I prepare a proper defense of my history degree and, more broadly, of a liberal arts education in general. I remember articles extolling the virtues of a liberal arts degree or why the humanities are still vitally important in today’s career-driven undergraduate courses.

The fact is, I made a very conscious decision to study what I did as a college undergrad, knowing full well that the courses I took were not preparing me for a job, but for a career. When I first arrived at my college – Duke University, for the record – I wasn’t committed to any major. Many people don’t know that Duke is basically a liberal arts school. We only have two “schools”: Trinity College, which is the liberal arts school with majors like history, biology, and econ, and the Pratt School of Engineering. If we didn’t have Pratt, Duke would be a liberal arts school; we’re not a place where you can get an undergraduate business degree or major in nursing or education.

The benefits of my liberal arts degree and my passion for the humanities are, in my opinion, endless. But since you probably don’t want to read a 25,000 word treatise on the virtues of my undergraduate education, I’ve condensed it all to three key reasons:

#1: It Puts Your Education In A Greater Context

We’ve all heard the saying, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” A liberal arts degree that forces students to take courses in history, religion, and other humanities courses teaches undergrads that the world does not revolve around them. Being able to put their world – and their place in it – into a broader context is vital to seeing the big picture; and any professional – whether a chemist in a lab or a businessman on the stock market floor – will tell you that big picture thinking is crucial to success.

That greater context allows us to appreciate the world we live in. It allows us to learn foreign languages and gives us insights into foreign cultures. It makes the world smaller, because, through the humanities, we realize how, on a human scale, how interconnected and interdependent we truly are.

#2: It Teaches You How To Learn

Consider this: when most of us were kids, Pluto was still a planet; a hundred years ago, many scientists believe in phrenology, the idea that a person’s personality could be mapped based on the size and shape of their skull; 200 years ago, evolution wasn’t even a concept.

What’s my point? That scientific facts – even widely held ones – change over time; sometimes, they change overnight. So what you learn today in your college biology class may be wrong tomorrow. But the lessons learned from a study of the humanities never change. Those big picture educational goals of liberal arts education – things like critical thinking, strong written and oral communications skills, and analyzing sets of historical data to predict future experiences – are largely immortal. In this way, the humanities are far more flexible and versatile than other fields of study, something that’s crucial in a working world where employees not only job hop more than ever before, but make total changes to their career, too.

#3: It Helps Us Recognize Our Own Impact

Most career-specific college majors point us to predefined conclusions; A leads to B, and B leads to C. But the humanities really teach us how to interpret all that. For example, science can show us the physiological impact of a change to our diet; but when you add the humanities in to the picture, you can see how the needs and wants of the human diet have changed over time, why people had to leave food-unstable regions, and the impact of these migrations.

In fact, today many employers are looking for students with inter-disciplinary degrees, undergraduate (or graduate) majors that bridge the sciences and the humanities, that focus on the liberal arts instead of an obsession with the knowledge necessary for a single type of job or career.

In summary, I’d argue that while you can probably be a good employee with a career-centric degree, you’d be a better person and global citizen if you spent some time with the humanities.

Do you see the benefit in the humanities or a liberal arts education? Why or why not?

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Pamela | Hands on Home Buyer April 1, 2013 at 10:26 am

Amen!!

I’ve never regretted my history degree. And I don’t think my employers have either.

I suspect the recent real estate crash might have been much less horrible if a few more people working in business and finance had history degrees.

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2 krantcents April 1, 2013 at 11:06 am

Although I was a Business major, I do not see the negatives of a liberal arts education. It just means you may have to enter a training program to apply your skills. The president of one of the companies I worked for had an English degree. He went into marketing after college.

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3 William Cowie April 1, 2013 at 11:44 am

My dad made a career out of history, so I learned from an early age how important history is to all of us. If you doubt that, look at all the people who bought or refinanced in 2006-2007. Anyone with a sense of history knows there’s an economic cycle and it repeats. And they also know what the different “seasons” of the cycle look like.

And they sidestep those crises which can be foreseen. Sadly, though, I suspect many history majors also got caught in the last downdraft, but only because they didn’t add an awareness of how history affects us all economically.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool believer in history, and the lessons we can learn from it. Like Krantcents said, what you learn is less important than you “learn to learn.” Any education hopefully trains you to keep your eyes open to what’s happening around us, and to learn from that whatever we can. Continually.

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4 Newlyweds on a Budget April 1, 2013 at 7:53 pm

I’m surprised that an English major made the list, even though I always got asked: “Oh so you want to be a teacher?” After college, I went into journalism and now work in public relations. I hate the notion that your major determines your job, because in most cases, it really doesn’t.

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5 Jim April 3, 2013 at 10:11 am

I would argue that a liberal arts degree isn’t worthless but ill advised for students who take out loans to pay for said degree that an entry level job is unlikely to provide a salary commensurate with the loan payment.

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6 Debt Girl April 4, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Great blog! I don’t think any degree is worthless, although the media is eating up that logic right now. I have a Fine Art degree and had to take out student loans because my family was lower middle class and couldn’t contribute. In our minds, having a Bachelor’s degree PERIOD was much better than not having one–and I’m not good with numbers or science, so getting a ‘worthy’ degree was pretty much out of the picture. Now, getting a Master’s or a PhD in a ‘worthless’ subject is a whole ‘nother topic…

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7 eemusings April 11, 2013 at 5:13 am

“The fact is, I made a very conscious decision to study what I did as a college undergrad, knowing full well that the courses I took were not preparing me for a job, but for a career”

I really like this, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it voiced in quite this way before.

(My communications degree, journalism major, has served me well so far, BTW.)

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8 Emily @ evolvingPF April 12, 2013 at 5:43 pm

I believe in a liberal arts education in terms of being taught how to think but it should be paired with some other job preparation activities just for practical purposes. For me, my liberal arts education culminated in my major in physics and experience in scientific research – definitely not a useless degree, though one that does require further training in either graduate school or to function as an engineer. Perhaps students in other majors could take internships or co-ops along the way to make themselves more marketable.

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9 Josh May 7, 2013 at 12:00 pm

I’m torn between History and Pre-Engineering. I’m current going for Engineering but have a ways to go before I get to the bulk of the core classes related to that degree. I’m actually at the point where I could turn the ship in any direction without hurting myself. History plus a required foreign language sounds like fun, but Engineering pays more. Sigh.

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10 Mark May 22, 2013 at 1:35 am

I disagree! I graduated with a degree in History last year, I was honored in my commencement ceremony, I had a high GPA. I am yet to find a job, I have no desire to go to graduate school but the degree I have means nothing. You get pissed off at people saying it worthless…wait until you hit the job market. I was even willing to relocate but if you don’t get your Ph.D the degree isn’t worth the paper its printed on!

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11 Ryan June 8, 2013 at 12:02 am

I think your points are idiotic in particular your second major point “it teaches you how to learn”. You say this course teaches “critical thinking,strong written and oral communication skills and analysing sets of historical data” but quite frankly I don’t think you should even consider higher education let alone a degree until you’ve got a good grasp and comprehension on all of these skills. Additionally how can you’re degree possibly be more flexible in these skills than other degrees are you saying no other degrees use various types of educational skills- absurd. Although, I definitely agree a degree does help set you up with a career, IN THE CHOSEN FIELD. So unless your planning on becoming a history teacher, or historian or some other history related profession, or you done the degree for enjoyment, I would say that the degree is useless

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12 Bcraig061 June 13, 2013 at 12:30 am

^Then I’m assuming your not pursuing a higher education, because “quite frankly”, your writing/ communication skills are lacking, in a pretty rough around the edges never written an organized articulate thought kind of way (so to speak lol); much less an understanding of the importance in being able to do so. In other words, I pieced together what you wanted to convey, but that does not mean you communicated it well. Thanks for proving the posters’ point!

P.S. I’m a HISTORY major! Whoop whoop ; )

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13 Bill Hamilton June 14, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Whenever I read an article singing the praises of a liberal arts degree I am reminded of how despicable some people can be. Rather than admit they made a poor life choice, they spread falsehoods in order to justify their bad decisions. Unfortunately, there are young, gullible minds that will be mislead by such tripe.

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14 Josh July 6, 2013 at 2:18 am

What exactly makes it a bad life choice? If you’re going to say something like that then please give perhaps specifics or examples. The three points this person makes are very true, definitely not falsehoods. You may have to study liberal arts to understand. What is your background pray tell?

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15 Given up July 10, 2013 at 1:26 pm

I disagree… I graduated with a history degree in 2011 and have yet to find a job. Not even a meaningless minimum wage one…

I’ve given up after sending in over a thousand resumes and applications.

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